44 million birds lost in the UK since 1966

including an average of 50 house sparrows every hour…

Report from British Birds

Since 1966, the UK has lost breeding birds from the countryside at an average rate of a nesting pair every minute, say conservationists in The State of the UK’s Birds 2012, published on Monday 19th November.

House sparrow. Photo by Mick DrydenThe report estimates that there are 166 million nesting birds in the UK, compared with 210 million nesting birds in 1966. The house sparrow has seen one of the greatest losses of any bird in the UK. Although since 2000 house sparrow numbers have started to increase, the UK still has 20 million fewer sparrows than it did in 1966. The current population is estimated at around 10 million.

One of the report’s authors, Dr Mark Eaton of the RSPB said: “It is shocking to think that we’ve lost one in five of the individual birds that we had in the 1960s, especially when you think that the 44 million birds we have lost since 1966 is equivalent to the current adult human population of England and Wales.”

There have been many changes in the UK which have affected birds, most notably changes in the land use and the management of the countryside and seas – these can change the amount or quality of key resources needed by birds, such as suitable places to nest or a shortage of food in summer or winter. However, for some species, including the house sparrow, the precise reasons behind these declines aren’t fully understood.

Turtle dove in St Ouen's Bay. Photo by Miranda CollettThe changing fortunes of two, related species further highlight the changes to the UK’s birds: the turtle dove and the collared dove. In 1966, the turtle dove was still a widespread bird with about 140,000 breeding pairs, whilst numbers of the collared dove were very low, as the species only began nesting in the UK in 1955. Today there are only thought be around 14,000 pairs of turtle dove nesting in the UK, whereas the collared dove had exploded to around one million pairs.

Collared dove. Photo by Mick DrydenCold weather is thought to have had a startling effect on bird numbers too. The wren, for example – still the UK’s most numerous bird – has lost an average of 835 individuals a day since 2000. But another garden bird, the chaffinch, has increased at a rate of 150 individuals per day.

Dr Andy Musgrove of the BTO, who worked on compiling these figures, said “We have learnt a great deal about bird numbers in the UK and, particularly, how they have changed through time. Amongst individual species, whilst there have been some winners, the number of losers is greater and the long-term picture is sobering. There is still more to learn though, and we need the continuing support of ever greater numbers of volunteer birdwatchers, on whose efforts all of these numbers are based”.

The State of the UK’s Birds report is a great example of ‘citizen science’ in action. Most of the information upon which the report is based is derived from the efforts of a network of skilled, volunteer ornithologists who contribute to national monitoring schemes like the UK’s Breeding Bird Survey and Wetland Bird Survey. Such schemes provide a high quality evidence base underpinning the work of government, conservation organisations and land managers in their joint efforts to conserve the natural environment and its wildlife. Here in Jersey we too rely on volunteer observers sending in their sightings to the Bird Recorder at the Société Jersiaise Ornithology Section. We in turn compile an annual Bird Report each year (copies are available from The Museum in St Helier and from the Durrell Visitor Centre). The Ornithology Section also takes part in most of the UK’s bird monitoring schemes such as the Breeding Bird Survey and BIRDS ON THE EDGE includes a bird monitoring project. Channel Islands bird numbers are not included in The State of the UK’s Birds 2012 but the current status of Jersey’s bird populations can be seen in our own report Conservation Status of Jersey’s Birds: Jersey’s bird populations in the 21st Century.

The State of the UK’s Birds 2012 is produced by RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation. The report also includes the latest information on the number of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds spending the winter in the UK and an update on the internationally-important birds, including albatrosses and penguins, on the UK’s overseas territories.

The State of the UK’s Birds 2012 can be downloaded from the British Trust for Ornithology.

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